The city of Safed was devastated by an earthquake, and the brief renaissance of Jewish life there came to an end.

However, the literary works produced in that short time spread across the Jewish world. Universally accepted was the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) by Rabbi Joseph Karo, and it was further enhanced when Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Chief Rabbi of Krakow, Poland) annotated it with the Ashkenazic, or European Jewish, customs. It is interesting to note that in the Jewish cemetery in Safed, Rabbi Karo and the Arizal are buried in close proximity, indicating the total synthesis between the revealed part of the Torah as embodied in the Code of Jewish Law, and the mystical tradition as expounded by the Arizal.

The Kabbalist is guided by the Code of Jewish Law and the legalist is inspired and spiritualized by the Kabbalah.

As time passed, the bulk of Jewry became concentrated in Europe. The shifting population took along with it the Kabbalah, and many of the leading Jews were well versed in the text’s doctrines. Despite the Arizal permitting the teaching of the mystical tradition to be publicized, because of the text’s complexities and the general ignorance of the population, much of the Kabbalah remained held within small, elite circles. The Kabbalah also gained opponents during this time because some began to profess powers of the occult. These mavericks were distanced and in some cases ostracized by the community.

Perhaps the most infamous case was that of Shabbetai Zvi, who claimed he possessed Kabbalistic powers and was the messiah. His ultimate conversion to Islam resulted in a debacle which only further convinced the establishment that Kabbalah was to be limited to true scholars who had first mastered Talmudic study.

Because of a series of devastating pogroms, vast displacement, and spiritual decline, a gaping schism developed in the Jewish community. Jews were divided into essentially two classes: scholars and the ignorant, known by the pejorative term Amei Haaretz (lit. “people of the land”). Although this uneducated class was sincere and devout, it was for the most part illiterate and focused not on the esoteric or scholarly, but on the daily struggle to survive as farmers or tradesmen. In medical terminology, it would be correct to say that in that period, the Jewish people were in a state of faint—the Jewish soul submerged under the burden of mere survival. The wandering Jew became a byword and the hardships of Exile (Galut) a daily reality. In order to revive a person who has fainted, it is necessary to give them a pungent smelling salt that will deeply arouse their soul. To explain by way of parable:

There was once a king who had an only son. This son was the apple of the king’s eye and was raised in the finest tradition. One day the son became deathly ill, and all the physicians of the land were summoned to cure him but were without success.

Finally, one doctor suggested a strange remedy. He said that if one would take a certain precious gem, crush it, and mix it with water, and then apply drops to the prince’s lips then perhaps that would cure him. “Where can such a gem be found?” enquired the king. “The crown Jewel of your majesty’s crown is such a gem. Are you prepared to have it removed and crushed to save your child?” replied the doctor. “Of course, this is my child!” said the king and the medicine was administered successfully.

In the analogue, the child represents the Jewish people in a state of spiritual faint, while the crown jewel represents the deepest teachings of the Torah which can touch the soul like no other. In order to save the Jewish people, allowance was given from Above to remove the crown jewel from its place, crush it, and “package” it in small drops that the weak and faint child could absorb, and thus revive the child.

It was therefore in this setting that the Almighty sent into the world the holy soul of Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, also known as Baal Shem Tov. Just before his father Eliezer died, he instructed the little Israel, “Have no fear of any being, only G‑d, and love your fellow Jew with all your heart.” This last will and testament became the foundation of the Baal Shem Tov’s life philosophy—a constant awareness of the imminent Creator, and Ahavat Yisrael—“love of a fellow Jew.” Orphaned at the age of five, the Baal Shem Tov was fostered by a group called the Nistarim, “clandestine Kabbalists” who worked incognito to better the lot of their brethren. When at the age of , the Baal Shem Tov became the recognized leader of the Nistarim and his fame started to spread.

He settled in the town of Mezibuz, but he frequently traveled around the Jewish communities arousing souls with the elixir of Hassidism. Being a profound scholar in the revealed parts of the Torah, he gathered around him a circle of other brilliant Torah scholars to whom he taught the deepest parts of the Torah. He set their souls on fire, and they served G‑d with boundless joy and fervor. While enlightening the scholars, the Baal Shem Tov also lifted the spirit of common folk while entertaining them at his table and building their self-esteem.

He was widely acclaimed as a miracle worker, and thousands flocked to him for advice and blessings. Today there are volumes of Baal Shem Tov stories that tell the stories of how he miraculously saved a town from a heavenly decree or blessed a childless couple, along with many other miraculous events.

He would arrive unrecognized in a town and go to the town square, gather around him the common folk, and preach in simple but eloquent terms how much G‑d loved them. He spoke of Ahavat Yisrael, the importance of “loving a fellow Jew,” no matter what his background, religious observance or knowledge, and how each Jew is a precious child of G‑d. He spoke about the importance of a single deed, both on the cosmic and microcosmic level, when that deed is done with heart and sincerity. He encouraged everyone to say Baruch Hashem (Thank G‑d).

The Baal Shem Tov succeeded in creating a movement that filled rituals and observance with soul, joy, and sincerity.

In his students, he instilled principles such as the knowledge of on-going creation ex nihilo (from nothing), Divine providence for even inanimate objects, and others, which will be explored in further chapters. Although he himself never wrote any books, his teachings were preserved by his students, primarily by Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezritch, who succeeded the Baal Shem Tov as leader of the chassidic movement.

Of greatest significance, however, was an event that occurred one Rosh Hashanah. The Baal Shem Tov used Kabbalah to experience an elevation of the soul to the heavenly realms. It was here that he met with Mashiach. The Baal Shem Tov asked, “When will you arrive?” Mashiach replied, “When your teachings will be widely disseminated.” This indicated to the Baal Shem Tov that the time had come for the mystical tradition to fill the world, for the dissemination of the inner dimension of the Torah was needed to usher in the era of Mashiach.

One could therefore summarize by saying that at this juncture in history, Divine permission for the revelation of the “Inner Dimension of the Torah” (Pnimiyut HaTorah) on the widest possible scale was given for two reasons: firstly, to revive the faint Jewish masses, and secondly, to prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach. These points answer the question as to why these teachings were not previously revealed.

Many people claim that Hassidism is a new entity and the Jewish people had survived for millennia without it, and would therefore question its necessity. The counter to such beliefs is the concept that due to the darkness of the exile, an extra strong antidote was needed to combat the forces of darkness, and due to the proximity of the future redemption of Mashiach, it was time for the Jewish people to prepare for his coming and draw closer his coming by tasting from his teachings. The Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid started this process, however it took on an entirely new momentum with the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the ChaBaD movement.